Mon, Mar 04, 2013 - Page 9 News List

British multicultural school could provide lessons for society

Not one pupil at the Peterborough school in central England speaks English as a first language. However, despite the challenges, it has just received a glowing inspectors’ report

By Patrick Barkham  /  The Guardian, London

Illustration: YUSHA

“We’re using a thesaurus and finding different words to make ‘sad,’” explains Rehan, eight. The pupil reads from the list his English class has assembled.

“Grief-stricken, heartbroken, distressing,” it reads.

“Heartbroken,” head teacher Christine Parker says. “I think that’s how I felt in November 2011.”

That was when Gladstone Primary School in Peterborough was judged “inadequate” by OFSTED, the UK teaching inspectorate’s lowest mark. The school was ordered to improve and was inspected with alarming regularity until it did. After a stressful 16 months, OFSTED has finally issued a glowing report.

“Standards are rising rapidly. Pupils are making good progress often from a low starting point,” inspectors said.

The behavior of children at the school had always been good — in one report last year inspectors described pupils as “delightful” — but now the school was performing well academically.

The head teacher was praised for expecting high standards and for having “significantly improved the school,” the school was graded “good” in every aspect.

However, a decent OFSTED report is not why the 450-pupil school has made the national news. Gladstone Primary is believed to be the only school in the country where none of its children speak English as their first language. This fact fascinates and repels media commentators.

“If you wonder what’s gone wrong with Britain look no further than Gladstone Primary School, Peterborough, where not one pupil speaks English as a first language,” thundered Peter Hill in the Express, without actually explaining why.

Is Gladstone Primary a vision of a dystopian future or a triumph of multiculturalism? What is it like to be a pupil and a teacher there?

The colorful displays, the smell of crayons and the hush of mid-morning lessons feels the same as any primary school in Britain and the children huddled around tables would not alarm the most bigoted of columnists: They speak perfect English and there are a number of white faces because of the recent arrival of Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish children from families drawn to agricultural jobs in the area.

Peterborough has welcomed other nationalities ever since Seaxwulf — said to be an orphaned foreigner — established a seventh century monastery in heathen East Anglia. The town became a major center for Italian immigrants in the 1950s, who labored in the brickworks, and later, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers. There are more than 100 languages spoken and more than a third of children in Peterborough speak English as their second language, up from one in five in 2008.

Across Britain, schools are becoming more multicultural. Just over 1 million primary and secondary pupils spoke a first language other than English last year compared with about 800,000 in 2007. Last year, on average, one in six (17.5 percent) primary school pupils spoke another language at home, up from 16.8 percent in 2011.

However, the challenges facing Gladstone Primary seem particularly acute. About 80 percent of its pupils are from a Pakistani background: Most speak Punjabi, but the school’s 20 other languages include Dari, Pashto, Gujarati, Kurdish, Arabic, Lithuanian, Latvian, Russian, Polish, Slovakian, Czech, German and French. One child is from the Seychelles; another from Guinea Bissau. At break, six nine-year-olds girls all cheerily admit they could not speak English when they arrived at school.

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